Text Messaging While Driving

You have probably witnessed it before: a driver weaving in and out of lanes, blowing through a red light, or ignoring pedestrian signs, and when you look into the driver’s side window, you spot the wrongdoer gripping a cell phone and punching away at his or her key pad.

More headlines across the nation are reflecting accidents and even deaths caused by drivers sending or receiving text messages—from on-the-job subway, train, truck, and bus drivers to motorists young and old. As a growing number of state-wide, hand-held phone bans take effect, federal, state, and local officials and law enforcement agencies are stepping up efforts to control this new epidemic before more fatalities occur.

Texting is not just a trend, but one of today’s chief forms of communication. According to the Pew Research Institute, 72 percent of American adults text and 40 percent use a mobile phone to access the internet, email, or send instant messages. Over 50 percent of teens send 50 or more text messages per day, while adults who text send an average of 10 messages per day.1 Despite these rates, there is support for banning text messaging. The Automobile Association of America (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety research revealed 88 percent of drivers believe text messaging and emailing while driving is a very serious threat to their personal safety, yet 25 percent of drivers admitted to sending texts or emails while behind the wheel.2

Recent reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tracked car crashes due to “distracted driving,” a term encompassing not only text messaging or talking on a phone, but also grooming, eating, and even reading maps. According to NHTSA, in 2009 20 percent of injury crashes involved reports of distracted driving; 5,474 people were killed on U.S. roadways and an additional 448,000 were injured—all in motor vehicle crashes reported to have involved distracted driving.3 Photo: Text Messaging While Driving

In response, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary, Ray LaHood, has led a crusade to end distracted driving; making it a federal offense for truck and bus drivers to text and drive, leading national distracted driving summits, and even launching a “Faces of Distracted Driving” video series. Last year, President Obama issued an Executive Order restricting federal employees from texting and driving while on-the-job, and many private industries are placing similar restrictions on their employees. Non-profit organizations, celebrities, and local news stations are also promoting anti-text while driving pledges.

Currently, 30 states including the District of Columbia and Guam have bans on text messaging and driving.4 Despite these bans, local law enforcement officials have found it is difficult to catch a driver in the act.

The NHTSA released interim data on a year-long pilot program aimed at reducing hand-held phone use while driving in two communities. The NHTSA are testing the effectiveness of high visibility enforcement models (HVE) in Hartford, Connecticut and Syracuse, New York. The HVE model partners law enforcement agency efforts with media outreach. Each four-wave demonstration combined enforcement-based press events and campaigns (online advertising, local news broadcasts, digital message boards, etc.) with community-tailored enforcement strategies. Some state, county, and metropolitan police departments’ strategies included spotter techniques and roving patrols to catch drivers using hand-held phones. Based on interim data, texting while driving declined 68 percent in Hartford and 42 percent in Syracuse.5 This spring, the final wave of NHTSA demonstrations will be completed.

Using a similar model to the Hartford and Syracuse pilot, this year the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department is conducting text patrols, using unmarked sport utility vehicles as a more aggressive effort in enforcing Tennessee’s 2009 legislation outlawing the practice.6 While other U.S. cities are conducting one-day sweeps for hand-held phones, other states and counties have passed distracted/inattentive driving laws and ordinances.

Penalties for texting vary by state: fines range from $50 to $1,000 or more and cost drivers points on their license. The federal law prohibiting commercial truck drivers from texting can cost a violator more than $2,000.

Utah now has one of the toughest laws against texting and driving: if a driver’s texting causes injury or death, it could result in a $10,000 fine and up to 15 years in prison. Last year, a California woman was sentenced to six years in jail for a texting car crash, and most recently texting has also been cited as the cause of a fatal head-on collision, where the driver could face up to 10 years in prison for vehicular homicide.

The AAA aims to pass texting while driving bans in all 50 states by 2013.

-Adele Norton
HR Liaison Specialist
The COPS Office


2 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. 2010 Traffic Safety Culture Index. http://www.aaafoundation.org/pdf/2010TSCIndexFinalReport.pdf

3 U.S. Department of Transportation. 2009. “Statistics and Facts about Distracted Driving.” http://www.distraction.gov/stats-and-facts/index.html.

4 Governor’s Highway Safety Association. 2011. “Cell phone and Texting Laws.” http://www.ghsa.org/html/stateinfo/laws/cellphone_laws.html. February.

5 Cosgrove, Linda., Neil Chaudhary, and Scott Roberts. 2010. High Visibility Enforcement Demonstration Programs in Connecticut and New York Reduce Hand-Held Phone Use. Washington, D.C.: NHTSA Office of Behavioral Safety Research.

6 Bliss, Jessica. 2010. “Nashville Crackdown means Pressure for Drivers who Text.” The Tennessean, January 31, 2

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